The CEO of Thames Water has been heard saying she would happily “take a dip” in a river that is full of treated sewage despite confirming earlier that this water would still contain “some bacteria”.
Cathryn Ross was challenged by Liberal Democrat Hina Bokhair at a meeting in the London Assembly last Wednesday (13 September).
The assembly’s environment committee were discussing the water company’s plans to pump the River Thames with treated wastewater from Mogden Sewage Treatment Works to save water.
The scheme would provide up to 75 million litres of water a day during droughts and dry weather - but it would not be designed to run at these levels all year.
It has faced fierce criticism from locals and water pollution campaigners, and a petition was set up in January raising concerns about the impact of the scheme on fish, insects and plants and that fines imposed for breaches of regulations would not be enough to protect the river.
The company’s statement of response, published with the updated plan, said work completed to date shows the Teddington scheme "poses a low risk to the environment and river users" and remains one of its "preferred schemes".
In the meeting last week Bokhari opposed the scheme saying it will be built on “part of the Thames which is incredibly popular for leisure usage” and is “jam-packed with swimmers and canoeists and boaters.”
She also pointed out that the company has not yet completed an environmental impact assessment for the project.
Ross said Thames Water “absolutely recognises” the “strength of feeling in the local area”, and that the scheme remained at a relatively early stage, meaning that it won’t be delivered until 2029 or 2030.
She said the company would complete an environmental impact assessment at a later stage in the planning process.
Bokhari pressed whether she would meet the campaigners opposed to the scheme to which Ross replied “of course”.
Bokhari said: “Good, I’m glad you will, and I’m sure they’ll be keen to see whether you will take a dip as well.”
Ross was heard replying “it depends on the weather”, before Bokhari asked: “Would you take a dip in effluent though? Would you do it in treated sewage water?”
Ross responded: “Yes. I would take a dip in a river where we had discharged fully treated effluent.”
Her comments came despite confirming at the same meeting that treated sewage water still contains “some bacteria” and is not disinfected.
She said the water coming from Mogden sewage treatment works is “fully treated water” but she “accepts” concerns of local residents that “at the moment that treatment process does not disinfect the water.”
Ross said: “There are some bacteria that we just do not take out through a sewage treatment process; we just do not. The concern is that if we are increasing the discharge from Mogden above the Teddington Weir, that will include that discharge and that fully recycled water will still include some bacteria.
“At the moment, disinfecting water that comes out of sewage treatment works is not what we are required to do, it is not the standard, and it is not what the works is built for.”
She added that if the stretch of water “was designated a bathing water” then the water company “might have a reason to increase the level of treatment at the Mogden sewage treatment works.”
Ashley Smith, from environmental group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, warned Ross to be “very cautious” and “choose sewage works carefully.”
He told NationalWorld: “Water companies claim to return cleaned water as effluent but the liquid still contains very high levels of coliform bacteria as well as chemicals, hormones, and drugs as well as resistant bacteria, so, if Ms Ross does swim in any I would suggest she is very cautious and chooses the sewage works carefully because some of them discharge visibly shocking effluent even containing undigested food which still allegedly complies with Environment Agency permit standards.”
Ross went on to confirm that the water company has an “ageing asset base” which is not being replaced “in the way that might have been accepted” and it now has additional factors such as “climate change adaptation” that needs to be paid for.
She said: “Those are all things that customers have not paid for in the past. I am afraid it is an unpopular fact, but it is a fact that there is only one source of funding, and the source of funding is ultimately the customer, at least in the absence of taxpayer funding, and the customer and the taxpayer are not very different.
“Customer bills will go up to pay for this increasing resilience and increasing standards of environmental protection.”
This confirmation of a rise to water bills will not come as good news to those who have already been refusing to pay their wastewater bills.
Back in June members of the public refused to pay, demanding water companies “stop billing” households for removing their sewage as they are “not treating it”.
Angler Matt Marlow, from Stockport, Greater Manchester said he stopped paying his water bill entirely to United Utilities at around the start of this year because the water company is “trying to charge me for something I’m not getting”.
Thames Water was one of three water companies found to be discharging sewage illegally last year during dry weather, according to a BBC investigation.
Thames Water dry-spilled for 1,253 hours in 2022 at 49 overflow sites - and it is likely that more spills would have occurred during this time as the water company only monitors 62% of its overflow points.
A Thames Water spokesperson told NationalWorld “there are a number of methodologies for defining and calculating why and how dry day spills occur” and the Environment Agency’s methodology “is still being determined”.